A record number of tourists visited Amelia Island in fiscal year 2016-2017 as an award-winning marketing campaign made the beach community more attractive to visitors despite two hurricanes, a Zika virus health scare, and a drop in meetings.
Official figures announced at the County Commission meeting Monday said 652,100 people made trips to the island last year, a near two percent increase from the previous year and the ninth year in a row that tourism has grown.
“Despite all those obstacles…we’re continuing the streak,” said Amelia Island Tourist Development Council President and CEO Gil Langley.
Visitors are also paying more for hotel rooms. According to Mr. Langley, the average nightly rate is $223, an expensive overnight accommodation cost that is topped in Florida only by Key West.
The increase, he said, helped generate $135 million in lodging sales for the year.
“I’ll put that in perspective for you,” he said. “In 2010 we did $65 million in lodging sales.”
Mr. Langley put tourism’s impact on the local economy at $623 million.
“We’re very pleased to announce these numbers to you,” he said.
Award-winning marketing efforts are pushing the numbers and bringing the average occupancy rate to 71 percent, according to Mr. Langley, who said the organization was recognized for excellence by state and international tourism associations. Visit Florida awarded seven ‘Flagler Awards’ to the AITDC and the Hospitality Sales and Marketing Association International awarded five runner-up ‘Adrian’ awards in globally competitive contests.
While the success of tourism is unambiguous from a financial perspective, there are concerns about protecting natural resources and the impact growth is having on infrastructure.
“Local infrastructure is exhibiting signs of stress due to Nassau County’s tremendous growth,” according to the AITDC’s 2017-2018 marketing plan. “New communities extending off-island advertise a beach lifestyle, increasing day trip visitation without commensurate economic return.”
People who live within an easy drive of Amelia Island are likely to pack lunch in the cooler and head home at the end of the beach day. So they won’t be spending money at a restaurant or a hotel, goes the rationale. Day trippers also pack parking lots, which are often stretched to capacity during peak season. Regional transportation officials discussed a seasonal trolley service between Fernandina Beach and St. Augustine as well as park and ride facilities in a multi-county transit plan unanimously endorsed by the County Commission at the meeting Monday.
There has been concern from the county about crime, such as vandalism, at recreational facilities, including beachfront parks. Toilets and sinks have been pulled from restrooms and graffiti has been scratched on walls, according to reports from the Facilities Maintenance department. The county locks restroom facilities overnight, even at Burney Park where overnight camping is allowed, and the Nassau County Sheriff has significantly increased funding this year for beach patrols.
The AITDC has a new marketing campaign this year, switching from a ‘southern elegance’ theme to the branding effort tagline ‘Ever So Slightly.’ Officials are targeting wealthier travelers and asking them to extend their trip. Officials are hoping to boost room rates even higher, according to the plan.
There is a lot at stake. According to the AITDC (www.ameliaislandtdc.com), tourism accounts for one in five local jobs and generates more than 38 percent of Nassau County’s sales tax revenue—“twice that of the average Florida county,” according to the plan.
Officials will focus on social media and work with “paid partners” to create content (travel bloggers with significant followers are offered freebies, such as overnight accommodations, carriage rides or boat tours) and niche market segments, including eco-tourism and gender-based travel for girlfriends, guys, and lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender (LGBT) visitors, according to the plan.
There will be a focus on niche stories, such as bird-watching tips, best gluten-free dishes, locations to pop the question, restaurants that prepare your catch, and family tours.
“Engaging media influencers will begin to blur the lines between a traditional media stay and a direct ad buy. Consider budgeting for this new form of “social seeding,” said the plan.
International travelers will continue to be a target market. The AITDC plans to host foreign travel writers and influencers and translate videos and press kits into foreign languages. According to the plan, there will be a focus on Germany.
Tourism officials have embraced “wellness travel” for visitors to learn yoga, surfing, martial arts, and cooking. This fall, officials launched the Amelia Island Wellness Festival that was as much an effort to fill hotel rooms during “gap” travel periods as it was to boost the mind, body, and spirit.
Officials said they will “devise tactics” for voice recognition technology to keep Internet search rankings competitive. The plan said 41 percent of adults use “voice search” daily, citing a report from Forbes magazine.
The search is on for private funding, according to the AITDC, for use on projects and initiatives that directly impact the tourism industry.
The organization’s 52-page marking plan posted online, lists seven employees and seven marketing agencies that provide professional expertise in digital marketing, photography, public relations, paid advertising, analytics, and special events.
Next up on the special event calendar is Dickens on Centre, the Victorian-themed holiday festival, now in its third year. Mr. Langley said hundreds of lights have been installed on trees and buildings downtown to prepare for the December 8 to 10 event and he urged people to attend.
During Mr. Langley’s remarks at the commission meeting, people clapped and Chair Danny Leeper, a local realtor who also chairs the Tourist Development Council, said the report was “awesome.” He directed Mr. Langley to “keep up the great work.”